Darkest Hour

What a pleasant quirk of the release calendar that, so soon after Christopher Nolan’s crashing, titanic Dunkirk, we should be offered a more contemplative riposte from Joe Wright. With that film having taken care of the combatant and civilian experience of the Dunkirk evacuation, Darkest Hour now offers that of another chief participant, Winston Churchill.

Gary Oldman takes on this weighty role, both in performance and physicality; gone are the gaunt looks of Sirius Black or Commissioner Gordon, replaced with the famous jowls and podgy hands of our man from the fiver. Oldman carries Darkest Hour, by design, and his charming, unpredictable and forceful rendition is a hugely impressive one. His defiant speeches are delivered with aplomb, his moments of doubt tenderly considered and his interpersonal awkwardness lightly handled.

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Darkest Hour takes place over a matter of days in 1940, much like Dunkirk, and shows us less the rise of Winston Churchill, but rather his coronation. He begins the film as a prominent but unpopular figure in Whitehall, replacing the ailing Neville Chamberlain more by the whims of other players than through his own suitability. Once installed as Prime Minister his tribulations step into higher gears. Machinations are afoot, as the beleaguered government considers the possibility of negotiating terms with the Nazi threat.

Churchill’s views tend toward the confrontational, but are couched in a core uncertainty regarding the public’s views on the War. His insecurities, so at odds with the mythologised personality with whom we are likely to be familiar, are the chief source of drama in the film. Kristin Scott Thomas plays Clementine, his acerbic but supportive wife, and as usual does a stellar job despite sadly limited time onscreen. A moment of brief fury from her is one of the film’s very highlights.

The rest of the ensemble is solid enough, and Lily James’s wide-eyed typist provides a useful vehicle in the early phases of the picture. Yet, to match Oldman’s quality, the other principle performer is director Wright’s camera, aided by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, who also shot Inside Llewyn Davis. Llewyn‘s striking symmetry and careful framing are recalled here. Though Wright’s signature one-takes are restrained, his camera nonetheless feels alive, swooping through the House of Commons, gliding alongside quotidien roadside scenes, and zooming in and out of scenes of human tragedy that are the consequences of mannered debates in London.

Indeed, a repeated trick is the literal boxing in of Churchill by his surroundings and the framing of shots. In elevators, side-rooms and W.C. cubicles, moments of stress are heightened by this straightforward reflection of the character’s feelings of impotence, a striking and effective technique.

Joe Wright’s films, or his successes at least, have a certain ravishing quality to them, a classical feel; Atonement‘s stifled country sequence and Pride & Prejudice‘s quintessential romanticism alike. Darkest Hour channels a similar energy – it is uncomplicated in its themes and aims, and accomplished in its execution. The film is a fitting, if not exceptional, vessel for a performance of the calibre Oldman brings.

One thought on “Darkest Hour

  1. So, and I will admit to not having seen the movie (I don’t see that many movies in the cinema any more) but I always have and always will have somewhat of an issue with films that lionize Churchill. Whilst I respect and understand that he did a fantastic job of keeping the country’s morale up and at being a war leader, there are a multitude of issues that happened entirely under his premiership, that he could easily have averted, but chose not to. 1940 is too early for those issues to be dealt with, admittedly, and it’s also not within the remit of the film, but they are something that for the most part isn’t discussed within Britain, despite (or perhaps because) it is tied to some of the most horrible actions of British Colonialism.

    I have no doubt that the movie is fantastic, that the actors do amazing jobs and that the story is compelling and evocative. But for once I’d like to see a film about Churchill that focuses not on his trials and tribulations, but on the effects he had on others.

    Liked by 1 person

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